All the queens men, p.24
All the Queen's Men, page 24
Ronsard’s guests were shocked and uneasy. The violence of the night’s events had forcibly brought home to many of them exactly what sort of world their host lived in. It was all very well to flirt with danger, to boast to their friends that they had been guests at the notorious Louis Ronsard’s luxurious estate, to give him information that made them feel wicked and notorious too, but the reality of it was more brutal than they could have guessed.
He imagined none of them had ever seen a man who had been shot in the head. Then all hell had broken loose outside as Temple made his escape, with a hail of automatic fire that sounded as if a small war was being waged on his front lawn, the car crashing through his front gates, his guards scattering as small-arms fire was returned at them. It wasn’t just his security that had been breached, but theirs. They no longer had the illusion of safety. Most of them were leaving come the morning.
As a host, his night had been a fiasco. As a businessman, it was worse than that.
Temple and Niema had been in his office. What Niema was doing there, he couldn’t imagine. Perhaps she was Temple’s partner, perhaps not. Witnesses to the shooting in the hallway had agreed he was manhandling her, shoving her around, dragging her outside. On the other hand, Temple had been driving the car; who other than Niema had been shooting at his guards? It was possible Temple had been both driving and shooting; difficult, but not impossible, and Temple was a trained assassin.
What had they been doing in his office?
The lock wasn’t working. It had been, however, when he left the office the last time, because he automatically, from ingrained habit, tried the handle every time he left.
He stood in his office looking around, trying to see what Temple could have seen. What would he have been interested in? The computers, of course. But there was nothing on Cara’s that would have been of interest to him, and the information in Ronsard’s computer was password protected.
The password. He walked to his desk and surveyed the items on top of it. Nothing looked disturbed; his copy of A Tale of Two Cities was exactly where he had left it.
And yet, the instinct for survival that had stood him in such good stead told him that Temple had somehow breached the security in his computer as surely as he had breached the estate’s security. Ronsard couldn’t afford to assume otherwise. Nor could he afford to underestimate his opponent, a man who evidently appeared and disappeared at will, and who had access to government documents before they were made public. Such a man was a man with power either behind him, or in his own hands.
They had to be found. With one phone call to the authorities in Lyon he had immediately thrown a net over the airport, then, when one of his more observant men saw where a car had been driven off the road and found the Mercedes abandoned, extended that net to the car rental services also.
They were on foot, unless Temple stole another car. Ronsard arranged that he be told immediately if any thefts were reported.
He sat down at his desk, drumming his fingers on the wood. Lyon was the most logical immediate destination—but perhaps Temple would go in the opposite direction, for that reason. Do the unexpected. Keep your opponent off balance, guessing.
This would be like a game of chess, with moves and countermoves. The key to victory was planning ahead, anticipating every move his opponent could make.
Marseilles was to the south—a larger city than Lyon, with a huge, busy port. It was farther away, but once there, the chances of escaping went up dramatically.
The port. That was the key. Temple would escape by water.
* * *
The village was a small one, no more than fifteen houses loosely grouped on each side of the road. John selected an older model Renault that was parked in front of a cottage, as the older cars were easier to hotwire. Niema stood watch while he eased the car door open and felt under the dash for the wiring harness. The interior light was burning, but he didn’t have a flashlight and had to take the chance of someone seeing the light. With his knife, he stripped the wires of their plastic sheath.
Three cottages away, a dog roused from its doggy dreams and barked once, then fell silent. No light came on in any of the cottage’s windows.
“Get in,” John whispered, moving aside so she could crawl in from that side and not make more noise by having to open and close the passenger door, too. She wasn’t a four-year-old, and the Renault was small; she banged her knee on the gear shift, her head on the interior light, and her elbow on the steering wheel. Swearing under her breath, she finally maneuvered herself into the passenger seat.
John wasn’t laughing, but his mouth wore a curve that said he wanted to. The small interior light gave her the first clear look at him since they left the estate, and her heart skipped a beat. The right side of his face was streaked with dried blood, despite his efforts to wipe it off. His once-snowy shirt was rusty with dirt and blood, his hair was tousled, and beard stubble darkened his jaw. With the black strip of silk tied around his head, he looked like a disreputable, Armani-clad pirate.
If anyone saw them the way they looked now, they were busted.
He twisted the wires together, and the engine began trying to crank. It coughed, the fan turning, and he slid into the seat and gently pressed the gas pedal. With a high-pitched hum like a sewing machine, the car started. Without closing the door, he put in the clutch and shifted into low gear; the car began rolling as he let out the clutch. Fifty yards down the road, he closed the door.
“What time is it?” she asked, slumping in the seat. Her feet were throbbing. She eased them out of the sandals, knowing she might not be able to get her shoes back on and not caring. Sitting down was such a relief she almost groaned.
He glanced at his wristwatch. “A little after three. With luck, we have two or three hours before anyone notices the car is missing. Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”
“I’m not sleepy.” She wasn’t. She was exhausted but not sleepy. She was both hungry and thirsty, and really, really needed to soak her aching feet in cold water.
“You will be. When your adrenaline drops, you’ll crash.”
“What about you? Don’t you have adrenaline?” she snapped, though she didn’t know why she was suddenly crabby.
“I’m used to it. I’ve learned how to work through the crash.”
She wasn’t, though. She glanced at him. His strong hands were steady on the wheel, his expression as calm as if he were out for a Sunday drive. Maybe she looked that calm, too, but inside she was shredded.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” she said, appalled. There was no need to ask what “it” was. She didn’t want him to be reasonable and logical and tell her to just look at what they’d done as part of the job. All she wanted was to get this over with and leave with some semblance of dignity still intact.
“We have to at some point.”
“No, we don’t. I just want to forget it.”
He paused, and his jaw tightened. “Are you mad because you came, or because I did?”
She felt like screaming. God, why wouldn’t he just leave it alone? “Neither. Both.”
“That’s certainly a definitive answer.”
“If you want definitive answers, get a dictionary.”
Another pause, as if he measured her resistance. “All right, I’ll drop it for now, but we will talk.”
She didn’t reply. Didn’t he understand? Talking about what happened was like touching a wound, keeping it fresh and bleeding. But, no, how could he understand, when it wasn’t like that for him?
“How far is it to Nice?”
“A couple of hundred miles if we use the expressway, less if we go over the mountains. The direct route probably won’t be the fastest, though, at least not in this car. It doesn’t have the horses to climb the mountains at much more than a crawl.”
“The expressway should get us there by six-thirty or seven, though.”
“We’re too close to Ronsard’s estate. He’ll hear about this as soon as it’s reported. We need to ditch this one.”
“Valence, I think. I’ll look for something there.”
They were serial car thieves, she mused. Well, she had wanted excitement. John Medina certainly filled the bill; there were no dull stretches while in his company. But home was looking better and better, as a refuge in which she could deal with the idiocy of having fallen in love with him. She thought of her peaceful house, with everything specifically arranged to her liking—except for the double hook-and-eye latches on every door and window.
“If I can get a flight out, I’ll be home by this time tomorrow,” she said, then remembered her passport. “No, scratch that. No passport. How am I going to get back into the States?”
“We’ll probably take military transport home.”
We? He intended to travel with her? That was news. “You’re going back to Washington, too?”
“For the time being.”
He didn’t expand on that, and she didn’t ask. Instead she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Even if she couldn’t sleep, she could rest.
“A baker reported his car was stolen early this morning . . . here.” Ronsard put his finger on the map. The village was thirteen kilometers from the estate, on a small, narrow road that wound in a general southwest direction and eventually bisected the expressway. Several of his security people were gathered around the desk while he spoke on the telephone to a friend with the local authorities.
If Temple went south, he would have been in the same rough area as the village. “What make and color is the car? Do you have the license?” He wrote as he listened. “Yes, thank you. Keep me informed.”
He hung up and tore the sheet of paper off the pad. “Find this car,” he said, handing the sheet to his men. “On the expressway to Marseilles. Bring him back alive, if possible. If not—” He broke off and shrugged.
“And the woman?”
Ronsard hesitated. He didn’t know the extent of Niema’s involvement. He had personally searched her room and there was nothing suspicious there. Could Temple have kidnapped her? There was one thing of which he was absolutely sure: The man was obsessed with her. The intensity with which he had watched her couldn’t be feigned. He could still feel that way if they were partners, but if they weren’t, Temple was the type of man who wouldn’t balk at kidnapping if she wouldn’t go willingly.
The Niema he knew was funny, a little sharp-tongued, and kind-hearted. He remembered the way she had shown Laure how to apply the makeup she had acquired, the gentleness, the way she didn’t talk down to Laure as if being ill had somehow stunted his daughter’s ability to understand.
For Laure, he said, “Try not to hurt her. Bring her to me.”
They reached Valence before dawn. John cruised down the streets, looking for a promising target. The city had a population of over sixty thousand, so he should be able to find another car without a lot of trouble.
He glanced over at Niema, sitting as erect as a soldier, and his lips compressed into a grim line. He’d almost gotten her killed tonight. He had been so certain this would be an in-and-out job, the sort he could do blindfolded, but instead they had barely escaped with their lives.
He was still taking risks with her life. He knew it, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to make the call that would get them picked up, not now, not with what he’d done to her in Ronsard’s office lying between them like a snake coiled ready to strike if he tried to move it.
One phone call. That was all it would take. They would be picked up within the hour and flown to Nice, where he would up-link the files and finish the job. But the way things were now, she would move heaven and earth to go home and get away from him. He couldn’t let that happen, not with things the way they were between them.
He had gone to a lot of trouble to keep her from realizing how focused he was on her, and now that was working against him. She thought she was nothing more to him than a means to an end. What would she say if he told her the truth, that even though the love-making in Ronsard’s office had started out as a cover, he had seen the opportunity to have her and ruthlessly used it. What was worse, he would do it again. He’d take her any way he could, whenever he could.
Everything he’d said at Ronsard’s, everything he’d done, was the truth. That was why Ronsard had so easily believed the cover, because it was true. But Niema didn’t seem to see it, even though he knew she wanted him, was so physically aware of him she had climaxed with startling speed. Maybe he was too damn good at his job, at playing a role. He was tired of role-playing; when he kissed her, damn it, he wanted her to know he was kissing her because he wanted to rather than because it was what was called for in some unwritten script.
A police car was coming toward them in the other lane. He was so preoccupied he almost missed how it slowed as it approached. Then instinct kicked in and reflexes took over. “We’re made,” he said, downshifting and taking the next right on two wheels. There was no point in being subtle; it didn’t matter if they knew he’d seen them. What mattered was getting this car off the street before they were picked up. He jammed the gas pedal to the floor, needing to make the next turn before the police were able to turn around and fall in behind him.
Niema jerked to full attention. “That fast?” she asked incredulously.
“Ronsard has a lot of money. He can make a stolen vehicle a matter of prime importance.” He pushed the little car as hard as he could, its motor whining. The next turn was a left, and that one too was made on two wheels. He killed the headlights and took the next left, which brought them back out on the street from which they had originally turned off.
Niema was trying to brace herself against the dash, the door, anything to keep from being slung all over the car.
He took a right. They were now, with luck, going away from the police car. The narrow street he was on was winding, and dark; unless he touched the brakes, they shouldn’t be able to locate him.
He was good at driving without using the brakes. He downshifted whenever he needed to slow to take a curve, letting the engine do the work.
“What now?” she asked. She had given up on trying to brace herself and was on her knees on the floor. In spite of everything, a hint of cheerfulness had returned to her voice. He remembered the way she had grabbed the heavy pistol and returned fire as they were crashing the gates; far from getting hysterical, she thrived on excitement.
“We stay with the original plan. Dump this car, get another one.”
“Is there any chance of getting a little food while we’re doing all this?”
“If we can find a stream where we can clean up. We’re too noticeable the way we are.”
She looked down at her bare feet and tattered gown, then at his bloodstained tuxedo, and shrugged. “So we’re a little overdressed. I don’t think washing our faces and hands is going to help much.”
She was right about that. They needed a change of clothes before they were seen in public; they were too noticeable. And he’d forgotten about the black strip tied around his head, but he couldn’t remove it until they found some water, because the dried blood had stuck the material to the cut and if he pulled it off he’d start the damn thing bleeding again.
On the other hand, if the next car he stole had a full tank of gas, he could also steal some food and water and they wouldn’t need to stop again until they reached Nice. They could shower on the yacht and have clothing delivered.
“We also need to find a secluded area for other reasons,” she pointed out.
“Understood and obeyed.”
He left the Renault parked behind a shop and removed its plates. The next car they came to, he removed those plates, replaced them with the Renault’s, then they went back to the
“Where to now?” Niema asked. She was tired, but at least John had found a bush behind which she had relieved herself, so she wasn’t in any physical discomfort, other than her sore feet.
“We walk until we find another car.”
“I was afraid you were going to say that. Why didn’t we just take the car we put the Renault’s plates on?”
“They were too close together. We would automatically be suspected. We need a car on the other side of town.”
She sighed. The last thing she wanted to do right now was walk to the other side of town. No—the last thing she wanted to do was get caught. She bit her tongue to hold back any complaints that might slip out.
They walked for forty-five minutes before he spotted the car he wanted. It was a Fiat, parked at the top of a small slope, and it was unlocked. “Get in,” he said, and she thankfully crawled in. Instead of hotwiring it, he put it in neutral, braced his hands on the frame, and started it rolling. He hopped in and they rolled silently down the slope, away from the owner’s house. He let it roll as far as it would and then did the hot-wiring thing. The engine was another sewing machine, but it ran smoothly, and that was all they required.
Ronsard paced quietly. He didn’t like leaving everything to his men. He understood Temple, he thought, at least he didn’t underestimate him. His guests were gone; there was no reason for him to remain here.
The phone rang with another update. The Renault had been found in Valence, but there was no report of Temple or Madame Jamieson. The plates on the Renault had been switched with those from a Volvo, but the Volvo hadn’t been stolen.
by Linda Howard / Romance / Mystery & Thrillers have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes